The Military Design Movement: Drifting towards Embracing Uncertainty and Transformation in Complex Environments

By Ben Zweibelson

Over the past few decades, the international military community has incorporated a multi-disciplinary approach that breaks from traditional and largely mechanistic decision-making methodologies of the Industrial Era. Some have termed this a ‘post-industrial’ or ‘post-structural’ age or era. Others apply ‘post-modern’ despite the contradictions inherent in applying that term to label a period or era after the modernist one. This is where multiple theorists and military professionals hailing from a diverse mix of disciplines and fields attempt to explain how the world and the nature of war appears to be changing. More importantly, these different discourses also attempt to make sense of why accepted and traditional military decision-making and planning methodologies alone are inadequate or even harmful to military endeavors in this new confusing environment. I would offer that the emerging multi-disciplinary process known as ‘military design’ or simply ‘design thinking’ is quickly gaining international military interest. It really is not a field, or a single methodology; design appears to be a cognitive vessel or container that stretches to include some incredible blends and hybrids of seemingly incompatible theories, processes, language, and methods.

A blend of complexity theory, alternative managerial theory (change management), instructional design, and post-modern philosophy forms just some of this strange and new context for the 21st century military practitioner. The term ‘bricolage’ applies here, in that a practitioner might grab a handful of whatever is close at hand, and experiment with novel combinations therein. Think of improvisational jazz musicians working on the corner of a cafe where there is no sheet music, and the musicians are experimenting along a shared beat while playing out new combinations. street-jazz This is not akin to formal campaign design or traditional military planning, which suits the metaphor of an orchestra with sheet music, rehearsals, and the desire to synchronize everyone to attain conformity and reliability. Both musical groups accomplish different things; one produces a reliable and uniform pattern for the ear, while the other risks failure to experiment with constantly new combinations and avoid repeating the same performance. Perhaps in the swirling and overwhelmingly complex conflict environments of this new post-Industrial or ‘Information Age’ of social media, drones, flash mobs, 3D printers, and trans-regional networks wielding near-IOP capabilities of nation states, there is a shift from seeking sheet music processes in war towards something new? Could an organization blend orchestras with jazz trios, tailoring military thought and action in an adaptive and fluid manner that places the right sense making process at the disposal of the Commander and staff instead of seeking to force the environment into the model we wish to use? Is there a paradigm shift afoot in warfare for the 21st century? While the traditional military establishment initially resisted this paradigm shift towards a more fluid and normative (how the military ought to perform within complex adaptive conflicts) warfare methodologies, by 2016 multiple militaries have incorporated or expanded professional education, doctrine, and research into military design thinking.

Anglo-Saxon (as well as western and non-western) Armed Forces are all adapting within this new context of a shifting and transformative post-Cold War Era, albeit in different ways due to culture, ideologies, politics, and ideas. Many militaries have already gone through major revisions, doctrinal transformation, and mission realignment within this turbulent and uncertain period. Nonetheless, international, regional, and local emergent threats and new rivals will continue to seek vulnerabilities to exploit; the dominant military decision-making and organizational management processes (turning strategy into tactical execution) is nonexempt. Each military (as well as each service) has the opportunity to implement military design thinking into a uniquely self-reflective adaptation for their Armed Forces, within institutional as well as NATO and Allied contexts, for long-term military cultural transformation as well as critical innovation. Additionally, seeking ‘one design ring to rule them all’ in a single uniform design methodology for all Armed Forces is inherently dangerous and counterproductive for what military design stands for. Design comes in many flavors, tribes, and forms. However, I would offer that all military design possesses have three key ingredients. First, there is a strong element of reflective practice, or ’thinking about how one thinks’ and ‘why does our organization do this?” Critical thinking about the details alone is not enough; one must consider beyond the structure into the sociology, organizational theory, and even philosophy. Or, a fish never thinks about the water it is in until it is out of the water; a military tends to ignore institutional processes until it suffers significant failure. Design contains a healthy dose of critical reflection.

Second, design also includes a strong element of innovation, divergent thinking, and tolerance for experimentation and increased risk. Risk here is not about throwing lives and resources at a dangerous situation or anything literal. Instead, an organization that stretches the boundaries of what is possible (normative thinking) invokes risk. Increasing opportunities, experimenting with novel combinations, and applying new connections to ideas, tools, and relationships leads to increased risk as well as divergent thinking. Risk in divergent thinking is different than risk in convergent processes, where the reduction of risk is the objective.

Lastly, design includes a high tolerance for uncertainty coupled with the awareness that organizational transformation (the development of new forms, new content, and new ideas) will always occur in war. Like a shark in water, an organization that does not swim forward in cognitive transformation and exploration will die. Again, for design to create the conditions for novel and innovative opportunities for a military to accomplish objectives within complex conflict environments, the military design approach must feature all three of these elements in some manner. All existing military design methodologies (as well as civilian-oriented ones) exhibit these, and the primary structural and organizational distinctions between various military design models consists of institutional, cultural, and methodological nuances.

Explaining Military Design: Critical Self-Awareness through Conflict Drift

Military design emerged as an international military movement in the 1990s through the intersection of several overlapping non-military fields and the inquisitive experimentation of several instrumental military pioneers. Design, as a multi-disciplinary concept for normative approaches to human decision-making, emphasizes ‘what is possible’ and ‘how a military ought to function’ rather than a highly descriptive and conforming model (termed positivism) where militaries seek to predict future system behavior through past experiences, reductionism, and mechanistic logic. While some might argue that “we have always done design, just with different words”, this argument fails to account for the significant expansion of concepts associated with human development to include war. Or, consider how humanity once saw the world as a simplified concept of sky and ground, upon a flat plane. That concept was replaced with the planet as a globe, and later our ever-sophisticated frames moved our position to merely a small solar system in the spiral arm of a galaxy set across a massive universe of other galaxies. It is true the early man did “realize self-awareness using earlier language and concepts”, but there is no denial that through greater understanding and a diversity of concepts, we think differently and more comprehensively than previously. War is no different, and the development of radical new potentials in social networks, cyberspace, and the notion of a socially constructed reality provides deeper and potentially more perplexing opportunities within conflicts. Design capitalizes on novel concepts, language, and emergent methods that depart significantly from the established processes of classical and modernist military approaches. Because design thinking can also critically reflect upon them, both classical and modernist based military methods can also be modified and developed through design. This means that campaign design, operational planning, and processes such as MDMP, JOPP, MCPP, and many others can be altered, reflected upon, or discarded through design processes. The reverse is not the same. Detailed planning works with detailed planning, and is unable to break out of its own processes to reflect upon design; although several military doctrinal efforts to shackle design thinking as ‘step one to Mission Analysis” have attempted this flawed logic.

There are many parents to the military design movement, however the 20th century largely created several critical discipline paths that led to military application towards the end of the century based upon 20th century failures in traditional military decision-making and strategy. Early 20th century developments in mathematics led to the development of what would be later termed Complexity Theory, while on the philosophical side of human knowledge development, post-modernism began to confront modernist constructs through deconstruction, alternative realities, and radically different ways to consider how humans interact with reality. Sociology became a major field for development and innovation, leading to competing theories on the social construction of reality, paradigms, and how and why various societies interact within complexity such as war.

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Within 20th century Industrial Era warfare, military endeavors required an operational level of war to be formulated, and large-scale campaigns synchronizing myriad operations across time and space became massive institutional activities requiring larger and more sophisticated military staffs and organizations. By the late 20th century, all of these distinct and potentially unrelated fields began converging within advanced military applications. Militaries wanted to apply complexity theory to war, as well as post-modernism, sociology, advanced technology, instructional design, knowledge management, and other disciplines that broke from traditional military methods. Conditions were finally right for a leap in military thinking through generating design within a uniquely military perspective. Earlier efforts such as “Effects Based Operations” were inadequate and still held to uni-minded system logic where nodes might be targeted to collapse a system. Complex adaptive systems reject this, and render EBO a fantastic illusion. Design thinking embraces the uncertainty of complex adaptation, and considers both paradox and emergence as unavoidable processes that generate opportunity and novelty along with surprise, uncertainty, and frustration. Yet military institutions share several ideological and cultural factors that tend to resist change, particularly where ideas that might be ‘sacred cows’ are guarded for no other reason than tradition and a sense of stability in an unstable world. In the interwar period, a famous story of a French mobile artillery unit is applicable here.

A French General is shown a demonstration of the latest artillery technology since the end of World War I, consisting of a truck that tows an artillery piece with a gun crew. The team pulls up, unhitches the system, and rapidly puts it into firing position with a flurry of activity. The men crispy perform the routine, and fire the system. The General is impressed, but asks a question about the two men that remain standing at attention at both sides of the artillery system towards the trailer attachment. “Why are those men standing there?” He is told, “General, those men are there to hold the horses when the cannon fires.” The General tells them, “but you don’t have any horses anymore!” Traditions remain despite our advances in tools, ideas, and social constructs. Some may be useful, but all are usually difficult to question or remove without critical reflection and implied decisions on values and assumptions. Today, most Armed Forces are still carrying around men that are there to hold horses that no longer exist, in that we continue on processes, traditions, rituals, and methodologies that are nested within our organizations, established in our doctrine, and tucked away implicitly in how we think about war and our activities therein. The trick is being self-reflective and willing to seek these things out, and transform the organization so that we are not just more efficient, but more innovative.

The 21st Century Military Design Movement: International Emergence

Military design first developed through the groundbreaking theoretical work of Israeli retired Brigadier General Shimon Naveh through what he termed ‘Systemic Operational Design’ or SOD. While Naveh’s multi-disciplinary approach sampled from complexity theory, architectural design, post-modern philosophy, and organizational theory, the densely poetic and academic language of early Israeli SOD became a detriment to multiple military education efforts in Israel and the United States. However, the core concepts of Naveh’s work generated tremendous interest and study, and over time American, Australian, and Canadian militaries took on their own attempts at trans-disciplinary design thinking. Some also might credit John Boyd as an earlier post-modernist military thinker based on his work in the 1980s, however much of his deeper work on cycles of creation with destruction never made it into military doctrine where his simplified OODA Loop gained prominence. There are other important military innovators as well, yet Naveh managed to do something his predecessors were unable to do, in that he motivated an entire emergent field of new military approaches to complex problems that departed from established (traditional) planning techniques. Whether one agrees with SOD (in the multiple models that Naveh and the IDF have developed since 1997) or finds it incomprehensible and abstruse, the impact of SOD upon the western military world and the Anglo-Saxon Armed Forces in particular is systemic and with tremendous third order effects.

By the mid-decade of the new millennium, the U.S. Army implemented design thinking into its doctrine as well as professional military education at the U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies. The Australian Army, taking a slightly different approach, established ‘Adaptive Campaigning’ in their operational design construct, while the Canadian Forces College in Toronto began blending various military design concepts with civilian-based instructional design for a mixed-methods pedagogic approach as of 2013. Since 2014, the Polish National Defense University at Warsaw has published design concepts for military consideration as well as the Royal Netherlands Defense Forces through their Land Warfare Centre and a Hague-based government Think Tank. The Naval Postgraduate School has established a year-long design program drawing extensively from the civilian-based Stanford “Design School” approach, blending it into a military application. The Canadian military has expanded their design education across their field grade and senior leadership programs, also hosting advanced military hybrid warfare and design workshops. Meanwhile, a rise in doctoral dissertations focusing on design thinking and post-modern military concepts can be found from Oslo to Canberra. Even the British, in their traditionally muted approach to formal doctrine, have produced doctrinal papers on military sense making and cognition with their own incorporation of complexity theory, sociology, and philosophy on war. Today, the U.S. Air Force Air War College has even expanded to advanced design modules in their Grand Strategic Studies (GSS) program to address the latest military design and leadership concepts. Military design is expanding in terms of complexity and depth, as well as content and form. Here, diversity is a powerful force that provides divergent thinking and an ever-widening panoply of design options. This does put doctrine writers at a disadvantage, in that the desire to unify military design into a set methodology with common language for inter-service or Allied application seems impossible, or at least problematic. I would offer that design defies doctrine, because the role of doctrine is for convergence and efficiency. Design doctrine becomes an oxymoron of sorts. Doctrine might capture some static patterns that provide a snapshot of some design elements, but this is sort of like the difference between Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia the day someone such as Prince Charles or Princess Leia passed away. The printed book will be static and must wait until the next printing for an update, while within minutes online the Wikipedia entry has changed. This is just one aspect of how design differs from detailed planning and doctrine.

Show Me the Stepping Stones in the Fog, Please

Military professionals interested in the design movement might ask, “where might we find more” as well as “what order ought I start learning?” Structure is fluid in design, however it tends to help with starting out small. Jumping into French Post-Modern theory or advanced complexity studies will likely turn a reader off. Instead, there are many design sources available for consideration. There are a few questions one might ask first, however. What sort of design are you interested in? If general design, you could look towards instructional design and business-based design such as the Stanford Design School approach, or models such as ADDIE and AGILE.

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If one desires military design, there are many emerging articles in various journals such as NDU PRISM, Military Review, the Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, the Canadian Military Journal, the Canadian Army Journal, Small Wars Journal, Special Operations Journal, and many more. There are many fields and books associated with those areas for consideration. There are TED Talks, YouTube clips, online groups, and outstanding design workshops available around the country in civilian, academic, and military settings. The key is to know what style of design one is learning, and remain aware of the methodology, language, and deeper structural aspects of that design process. Blending design methods can be an exciting and innovative way to create tailored design solutions for complex challenges, but if done carelessly or without an awareness of the deeper differences in design techniques, one might also make a Frankenstein that causes havoc within your organization. Don’t let design become the operational planning monster that the rest of your organization rally to get their pitchforks and torches to come kill it. This means you must include extensive design education on your journey, to include the doctrine of military planning as well as different design fields, disciplines, and processes. Finding other design thinkers and practitioners tends to be an enriching and rewarding way to go about doing this, and there are many design professionals in various militaries, academia, and business environments to choose from.

Ben Zweibelson is a design course director for the USSOCOM Joint Special Operations University located in Tampa, Florida. A retired US Army Infantry officer with over 22 years of combined service including multiple combat tours to Iraq and Afghanistan, Ben has pursued design theory and practice for the past seven years and has published over 40 design articles, monographs and book chapters in international military and academic journals. He has assisted, lectured, or consulted international organizations such as the Canadian Army, the Royal Netherlands Army, the Polish Army at the Warsaw NDU, the Australian Army as well as numerous American military organizations on design practice, design theory, and design education. Currently pursuing his Doctorate in Philosophy through the Australian National University, Mr. Zweibelson has recently collaborated with the USAF Air War College in developing advanced military design education for their Grand Strategic Studies Program. He resides in Tampa, Florida with his wife and children.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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5 comments

  1. Ben, great summary of the movement! I would add that an emergent spinoff area of study that supports the multi-disciplinary approach should be called Critical Military Epistemology.” CME strives to deconstruct and criticize assumptions behind military doctrine and other forms of institutionally-accepted knowledge, to include hidden assumptions.

  2. Ben, great article! I am forever grateful for the Design education I received from SAMS (09-10). As an Air Force officer (and Jedi) I’m thankful to see this is being incorporated into the AWC at Maxwell. As a current student at the Naval War College, we did have a few sections of design taught during Joint Military Operations and concluded the course with a 2-week exercise using Design Methodology to tackle a US Approach for Ukraine. I lead asked to lead the exercise since I had some previous experience in design. I can also tell you I applied it and led a small design group while tackling the complexities of the Iraq Transition while serving in the J-5/Iraq Division at the Pentagon. It served us well as an alternative to other approaches that were not producing results. By properly framing the environment and identifying the problem appropriately, we were able to move forward. I’m. It convinced this will replace traditional planning models but it will certainly aid planning and provide creative strategists and planners another tool for their arsenal. If you haven’t seen it, Google “Art of Design 2.0 SAMS Manual”. It was a reference we walked away from SAMS with and I continue to use and reference it often.

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